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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Recordings Review: Dance 'Til He Drops

Claudio Abbado's classic Un Ballo in Maschera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The third in this survey of the La Scala Verdi recordings (and yes, it's wilfully out of order) is this excellent and mostly forgotten Un Ballo in Maschera, conducted with flair by the late Claudio Abbado.
Like Abbado's Aida (which was made around the same time with a lot of the same players) this Ballo was made at the very end of the analogue recording era, made in 1981 on the eve of the launch of the compact disc. And the warm, glowing sound of the violins and voices makes one regret all the problems that hit the recording industry because of that transition.

This same cast appeared in a Covent Garden production by John Vernon that moved the action back to Sweden from its censor-approved 18th century Boston setting. Verdi, always a great one for history, fought with censors who wanted the action moved to Viking times, and to remove the conspirators, the adultery(!) and of course, the regicide. Eventually, the action was shipped up to colonial Boston, making King Gustav III into "Riccardo, Count of Warwick." The Vernon production proved that Ballo works better dramatically if a King, not a Count, is assassinated at the denouement.

This is Domingo's second go-round on record as King Gustavo. The man is in his prime here. The voice had not yet darkened and (with the exception of a slight tendency to always rrroll his R's) was still comparable to that other famous tenor. Mr. Domingo's portrayal combines brashness and dignity.The listener believes (especially in the Act II duet at the gallows) that Gustavo has really fallen in love with Amelia--so much so that he unwittingly sets up his own death at the hands of her husband.

Renato Bruson is a great choice as Anckarström, the cuckolded husband. Mr. Bruson sails through the difficult dramatic journey from trusted advisor and friend to cold-blooded assassin. His final duet with his wife with its great cry of "La vendetta" makes you believe that he is playing not the opera character but the historical Count, who used rusted bullets to ensure that the King died of blood poisoning. Ouch.

As Amelia, the wife torn between husband and king, Katia Ricciarelli is well suited as the dear caught in the opera's proverbial headlights. Her bright, slightly hard tone lets her cut cleanly through the heavier orchestration in the gallows scene, and her distress at the reaction of the laughing courtiers is palpable. She and Bruson are electric together in the third act, propelled by Mr. Abbado's baton.

For once, Elena Obratzsova is ideally cast in a Verdi opera. Here, she finds beauty in the bellow of the blast in the short but crucial role of the fortune-telling witch Ulrica. (Why, in the Swedish version of the opera, do directors still call her Ulrica instead of the original "Madame Arvidson?) The only small caveat is Edita Gruberova in the travesti role of the page Oscar. She navigates the treacherous upper registers easily but there is something missing from this performance.

So if this is such a great recording, why is it unknown? There are a number of reasons. One, Mr. Domingo had already recorded this opera  (for EMI in 1975 with Martina Arroyo and Riccardo Muti conducting--it's pretty awesome) and this DG remake found him competing with himself. Two, the fact that this is an analog and not digital set meant that it was pushed quickly to the back burner in the advent of the CD revolution when marketing departments were trying to sell the world on the idea of digital sound and DDD recording as the paragon of recorded sound. Three, when it did come out on CD, it was unavailable in America for many years, because label superstar Herbert von Karajan had recorded his own version in Salzburg, a version that also starred...Placido Domingo. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.